IF the communist economist Karl Marx was to frame his famous and oft-hijacked phrase — “religion is the opium of the people” — today he’d probably swap the word religion for sport. Sport is a modern religion venerated through the high altar in the corner of our living room or, occasionally, a sideline or a terrace.
The Irish are as enthusiastic in our adoration as any nation. Clonmel in February, Cheltenham in March, Croke Park on a September Sunday, and Thomond Park on a spring afternoon when one of the giants of European rugby comes to visit.
Those are the top-of-the-tree events but anyone who has seen a Junior B football match between neighbouring parishes or one of soccer’s local derbies will know that the size of the stage has little or no influence over the emotion invested in the competition. Irish sports fans are equal opportunity supporters — it’s the integrity of the cause that matters, not its setting or grandeur.
As these events show, weekend after weekend sport may not be the marrow in our bones but it is the pulse of so much of what is attractive about this society.
Last Sunday Ireland’s rugby team played on one of the world’s great stages but once again failed to reach a World Cup semi-final. That dream must be put on hold for another four years but it is one scores of young men will give their all to realise.
That is the cruel nature of sport — investment does not guarantee a return, at least in purely sporting terms though everyone involved in Ireland’s World Cup campaign will, when disappointment’s high water mark ebbs away, be the stronger for the experience. They will be in a better position, if age and heart allow, to compete in Japan in 2019. Any honest appraisal will conclude that coach Joe Schmidt is perfectly qualified to lead that campaign.
Boxing coach Billy Walsh is another sports leader who has shown that he has everything required to lead a national team’s preparations for the world stage. Walsh led Irish fighters to Olympic, World, and European gold medals.
He is essentially one of the most successful coaches ever to lead an Irish sport. His influence outside the ring has been exemplary too, often opening doors usually closed to some of his charges. But that, it seems, is not good enough.
Yesterday, less than 300 days before the opening of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics at the Maracana Stadium, Walsh quit his position, saying it was the hardest of his career and that he had cried over it.
Walsh was unable to resolve contractual differences with the Irish Amateur Boxing Association and seems set to move to the US where his exceptional skills are in demand.
This disappointing news comes after protracted negotiations with the IABA failed and a contract drawn up by the Irish Sports Council and endorsed by Walsh was rejected by the association.
Irish boxing has been almost uniquely successful over recent years and has deservedly got considerable Government support. Those two reasons suggest that the IABA should publicly explain its position — and Walsh’s record demands that it does so.
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